Learning Difficulties in Children and How the Montessori Environment Can Help (Part 1)
Specific Learning difficulties or Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a group of learning difficulties that affect various aspects of learning. Children with learning difficulties have problems in the classroom learning context and struggle with academic tasks, and these challenges can range from mild to severe. These children have difficulty learning the conventional way and need different methods and strategies to comprehend better.
It is possible to identify Dyslexia early in life and provide remediation for these children to cope with the challenges. According to the International Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia can occur in children of all backgrounds and intellectual levels. Children with Dyslexia can be very bright. They are often capable and even gifted in art, computer science, design, drama, electronics, math, mechanics, music, and sports. It is essential to understand the different learning difficulties and how they manifest in the children to offer individualized support to the children with these challenges.
Common Learning Difficulties in Children
Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with reading. Some of the symptoms can be:
- Connecting letter symbols to sounds
- Difficulty interpreting and differentiating words
- Confusion with the order of letters in words
- Difficulty recognizing sight words
- Decoding or understanding text
- Can understand and take instructions given verbally but struggle with reading instructions
Dysgraphia is characterized by difficulty with writing. Some of the symptoms can be:
- Poor spelling
- Missing out letters or words while writing
- Incoherent written work
- Mixing cursive and print letters
- Unusual pencil holding grip
- Mirror images of letters while writing
- Difficulty visualizing words before writing
Dyscalculia is characterized by difficulty with Mathematics. Some of the symptoms can be:
- Difficulty with number work or anything involving numbers
- Inability to understand the meaning of numbers
- Cannot attach the concept of a certain quantity to a number
- Struggle with any calculations and problem-solving
- Difficulty memorizing
Dyspraxia is characterized by difficulty with body coordination and body balance. Some of the symptoms can be:
- Difficulty with fine motor and gross motor coordination
- Unusual body positions
- Have poor hand-eye coordination
- Come across as ‘accident-prone.’
- Bumping into things and people
- Difficulty hopping, jumping, catching a ball
ADHD- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ADHD is characterized by Hyperactivity, Difficulty sustaining Attention, Restlessness, and Impulsivity. Some of the signs of ADHD are:
- Difficulty with concentration
- Unable to sit in a place for more than a few minutes
- Have difficulty planning and executing
- Get very fidgety if confined to sitting for more than a few minutes
- Tend to act on impulses without thinking
ADD- Attention Deficit Disorder
ADD is characterized by poor working memory and a lack of sustained attention. Some of the signs of ADD are:
- Very easily distracted
- Difficulty sustaining the attention for more than a few moments
- No visible physical restlessness, but the mind is very distracted, and they find it difficult to refocus unless prompted.
How are Learning Difficulties identified?
Learning difficulties in children are observed once they start going to school. A series of observations over some time in the classroom environment, at home, and in a social setting is essential to understand the child's difficulties.
Understanding the child’s emotional, behavioral, and temperamental aspects is essential to get a complete picture of the difficulties. For example, sometimes, certain behaviors that are termed problematic could be a child's stress response to something happening at home or school.
A child is diagnosed with a learning difficulty only after a formal assessment by a qualified professional.
How Can the Montessori Environment Help Children with Learning Difficulties?
Children with learning difficulties have cognitive difficulty and delayed skill development at times. The uniqueness of the Montessori environment lies in the fact that several preparatory activities are introduced to the child before they are ready to take on more complex tasks.
These preparatory tasks have both direct and indirect goals. First, they prepare the child as he developmentally gets ready to be presented with a bigger activity. For example, a child with Dyslexia has difficulty reading, identifying letters and symbols, and the sound associated with a particular letter of the alphabet. Several preparatory activities in the Montessori setup prepare the child before he is introduced to reading.
A few examples could be:
Sound Game - In Sound Game, children identify objects based on the sounds. The sound game has many stages and is done progressively with children and is done in groups. The main aim is to be aware of the sounds. This draws them to the fact that all words are made up of sounds, and they also learn that sounds come out in a sequence.
Sandpaper Letters - This is tracing the sandpaper letters of the alphabet with their fingers as they vocalize the letter out aloud. This multi-sensory learning method helps them remember through the verbal, visual, auditory, and tactile methods.
The Three Period Name Lesson - This activity helps children remember names, words, and sounds.
Some of the activities that parents can do at home for children with Dyslexia could be:
- Games involving Phonics
- Games involving letter identification
- Breakdown reading material into smaller chunks
- Reading to children
- Memory games
- Helping them create art around letters of the alphabet
Appropriate Activities Based on The Child’s Developmental Readiness
The Montessori method follows the approach of observing the child and introducing activities that he is ready for. Therefore, children with learning difficulties need a lot of opportunities to work on the preparatory skills, which will, in turn, prepare them for the primary skill.
For example, a child with Dysgraphia has difficulty with writing tasks. It could be anything from copywriting, incoherent writing, unusual pencil grip, staying on the line, or wording correctly. In the Montessori setup, several activities prepare the children for writing. Practical life activities like pouring, sorting, fastening press studs, screwing on lids help the child develop ‘pincer movement,’ a fine motor skill required to hold the pencil correctly to write. In addition, activities like polishing, washing the table, folding cloth, etc., help develop coordination of movement and concentration, which is essential to writing.
In the Montessori classroom, children write way before doing it with a pencil and paper. The Movable Alphabet is introduced to the child once he is comfortable with the sounds and symbols associated with language. The child then starts writing words and framing short sentences using this activity. Working with the metal insets also prepares the child to write by practicing the movements required for writing. All these activities associated with preparation for writing greatly help children with Dysgraphia. They are much more confident and comfortable writing after they are systematically introduced to all these preparatory activities for writing.
Some of the activities that parents can do at home for children with Dysgraphia
- Helping with chores similar to practical life activities in the casa such as chopping vegetables, folding clothes, mopping, cleaning, etc
- Clay modeling and sorting small objects with fingers helps develop finger dexterity and wrist strength, which will aid in writing.
- Copywriting activities such as copying something from the board to the notebook.
- Coloring activities, painting, sketching - giving them an opportunity to use different aids which require a different amount of wrist pressure to work on the task.
- Breaking down writing tasks so they don’t get overwhelmed with all the writing, which is common with children with dysgraphia.
Activities to Develop Concentration and Attention
Learning requires sustained attention and concentration, which can be a significant challenge for children with learning difficulties. Sitting in a place and staying focused to complete a task is essential for classroom learning.
‘Silence Game’ is introduced to children in the Montessori classrooms, which helps them build their sitting tolerance. It starts with a simple sitting down and not moving one body part to be more complex, not moving the entire body for those few minutes.
The Ellipse-shaped line we see in every Montessori classroom is for the activity called ‘Walking on the line.’ This activity needs children to walk only on the line without getting deviated. It initially starts with the child walking with both feet on the line and completing one round of the ellipse. The activity gradually increases complexity where the child has to balance small objects on his head and hold some things in his hand as he walks on the line. ‘Walking on the line’ can help children develop motor coordination, balance, a focussed concentration which are significant challenges for children with Dyspraxia, ADD, and ADHD.
Some of the activities that can be done at home for children with ADD, ADHD, and Dyspraxia could be:
- Physical activities such as running, swimming, aerobics, dance, etc
- Board games that involve body movement.
- Memory games.
- Art projects, activities involving making something out of clay.
- Painting, Drawing, and Sketching
- Nature walks or spending time outdoors can be soothing and rejuvenating.
To Be Continued….
We will discuss more Montessori activities that can be done with children with learning issues in Part 2 of the article.
 Website- International Dyslexia Association
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